UC asks Congress to double Pell Grant funding

Grants have not kept pace with rising cost of education

The University of California, along with the UC Student Association, launched a campaign this week pushing Congress to double the amount of funding allocated each year for Pell Grants, which are the primary way the federal government helps low-income students pay for college.

Started in 1965, Pell Grants help millions of students afford a higher education. Last year, more than seven million students nationwide received Pell Grants, including nearly 80,000 UC students, roughly 35% of the UC student population. “Without the Pell Grant, I would not be able to receive a higher education,” Moises Hernandez, a first-generation college student at UCLA, said in a statement for the campaign.

Most Pell Grant recipients come from households with annual family incomes of $50,000 or less. Over the past 40 years, however, the portion of an education the grants cover has dramatically declined as the value of the grant has failed to keep pace with the steadily rising cost of college. In 1979, a Pell Grant covered 77% of the cost of a public four-year college degree. In 2019, the grants covered just 28% of a public four-year degree.

“For too long in America, we have seen low-income, first-generation, and undocumented students as well as individuals of color inequitably shoulder the financial burden from a college degree,” said University of California Student Association President Aidan Arasasingham. “Doubling the Pell takes us one step further on the path to a debt-free graduation.”

Last year, Pell Grants provided roughly $400 million to UC students. In comparison, UC awarded $800 million in need-based grants and the state of California provided $950 million through the Cal Grant program.

“The University of California has a longstanding record of investing in financial aid and student success,” said UC President Michael V. Drake, M.D. “However, UC cannot do this alone. We need impactful, long-term support for students and for higher education across the country; we need Congress to double the Pell as a down payment on America’s future.”

For 2020-21, the maximum Pell Grant is $6,345 per academic year and is set to rise to $6,495 for 2021-22. UC is pushing Congress to raise the maximum award by $2,168 each year until the grant is worth $13,000 in 2024.

UC’s Double the Pell campaign joins a nationwide advocacy effort in which dozens of institutions and student associations are asking Congress to increase the federal grants for low-income students. The request is all the more urgent, university leaders say, because of the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had on many students’ finances.  

Across the state and country, college students are struggling to afford housing, food and other essentials. “Due to COVID-19 I lost my job, lived in my car, and stayed late at school to finish my coursework,” Rakia White, a UC Berkeley student, said in a statement for the campaign. “If the Pell Grant was doubled it would prevent me from falling back into that life of uncertainty.”

In addition to providing short-term relief, increased Pell Grants would benefit students and the U.S. economy for years to come, according to university leaders. Because the grants no longer cover the majority of a four-year education, low-income students take on debt that can prevent them from buying homes, starting businesses or earning advanced degrees.

“Ensuring a more affordable, accessible higher education across the country is one of the greatest investments America can make — not only in those students, but also in their future contributions to the economy and to society,” said UC Board Chair John A. Pérez. “Their advancement and success will yield limitless dividends over years and decades.”

More funding for Pell Grants could also free up UC funding for students who are ineligible for the federal grants, a fact sheet on the UC’s Double the Pell campaign states. That funding could go to students whose family incomes disqualify them from receiving Pell Grants but who still struggle to afford college because of the high cost of living in Davis and other expensive housing markets that are home to UC campuses.

— Reach Caleb Hampton at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @calebmhampton.